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Spiritual Practices

The Thirst for Spirituality and the Rise of Witches

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Julie Peters explains why witchcraft appeals to so many people—and how witches can borrow respectfully from other traditions.

I am a witch. Well, sort of. I like to follow the moons and cast spells, little intuitive rituals where I write down my wishes and burn them over candle flames. I’m not really following any particular tradition.

When I was a little girl, I’d go to church with my family on Sundays. We’d listen to stories about Jesus and sing badly with the choir. Sometimes I found myself filled with a sense of the numinous, a delicious feeling that some divinity was there with us in the room.

But the doctrine of the Christian church didn’t really make sense to me. The myths of this religion didn’t have many women in them—poor Mary had to hold it down as a rare representation of feminine devotion, and she was an impossible virgin. Mary Magdalene was rarely mentioned in the church services because she was the opposite of Mary, a shameful whore.

I moved farther from the church as I grew older and learned what people had done in the name of Jesus. Scores of people have been murdered for believing in something else. Children have been secretly abused by priests for generations while church authorities covered it up. Young men and women have been disowned from their families for daring to love someone of the same sex. Sex itself is still hated and feared in the church. Physical pleasure is shoved down into some dank armpit of theology, and shame is taught instead.

I doubt this is what Jesus would have wanted for us. Jesus probably would have wanted us to love and accept each other and have lots of pleasurable safe sex. But that’s how religion goes—sometimes it structures itself around the men who interpret it, not its own deepest principles.

One particular group of people were especially targeted by the Christian historical patriarchs: women. My people.

The witch hunts began in the late 1400s as capitalism was just being born. The murder and torture of mostly women rose in intensity between 1560 and 1630 in Europe and North America and continued on in some form into the 1800s. That’s four centuries. Hundreds of thousands of people were burned at the stake, hanged, punished, or brutally tortured. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English point out in their study on witches in history called Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, 85 percent of the victims were female.

Today when people bring up a witch hunt, they’re usually talking about a white man who is feeling persecuted. Why don’t we talk about the witch hunts as what they were: a centuries-long campaign of terror against women?

In her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici explains how the witch hunts were deeply intertwined with the shift from feudalism to capitalism and the concurrent massive increase in wage inequality and patriarchal norms that oppressed women.

Most often, women were accused if they held any knowledge about the female reproductive system. Village healers had strategies for contraception and abortion. These were the witches.

In their book, Ehrenreich and English point out that the witch craze was not some random episode of mass hysteria. “Rather,” they write, “it followed well-ordered, legalistic campaigns, initiated, financed, and executed by Church and State.” The witches weren’t targeted randomly. These were the women who resisted.

Before the witch-hunt era, women held jobs of all kinds. They were bakers, alemakers, smiths, doctors, even surgeons. The capitalist structure required that these women give up their lives to the service of creating children, the future labor force. Ehrenreich and English write, “There is fragmentary evidence—which feminists ought to follow up—suggesting that in some areas witchcraft represented a female-led peasant rebellion.” These witches were not practicing some specific religion. They just wanted some bodily autonomy and the right to keep their jobs. It’s a battle women today are still fighting.

When I started learning more about the witch hunts, I wanted to believe that some “true” feminine religion was being suppressed. I wanted to believe that women of the time held power in their hands—magic even—that was being wrested away. I wanted the remnants of that tradition to have survived somehow. I wanted to tap into this powerful feminine magic.

Sadly, there is no such tradition. The witches who were hunted during the reign of terror were pretty much exclusively Christian, even though they were often accused of worshiping Satan. There’s no evidence they were practicing some sort of consistent nature-based feminine religion. Ehrenreich and English explain, “Today most scholars seem to agree that the beliefs of women who were executed as witches cannot be differentiated from those of the rest of the population, and most were avowedly Christian. Some pagan religions or remnants did survive in places but the connection between this and women accused of witchcraft remains unclear.”

This was disappointing for me. As I turned away from the Church and its masculine doctrines, I needed new places to connect to my spirituality, to feel that sense of the numinous. I craved a different way of believing in something. Wicca offered a solution, but it wasn’t the ancient, pre-Christian tradition I wanted it to be. It was developed in England in the 1940s and 1950s, popularized by a white guy named Gerald Gardner.

Still, the concept of witchcraft holds some magic for me. Even if it’s mostly a fiction, I wanted a lineage of rebellious women who held some power in their hands. And I’m not alone: the number of people in the U.S. who identified themselves as Wiccans rose from 8,000 to 340,000 between 1990 and 2008, according to a Trinity College survey. Around 1.5 million people call themselves Wiccan or Pagan in the U.S. today.

Many of these witches are, like me, white post-Christians. Our white ancestors stole the traditions of other cultures, colonized their land, enslaved their people. We are not proud of this history (at least, most of us). But we do crave ritual, communion with the divine, and connection with others. White people like me often feel shame about the spiritual traditions we’ve inherited. We want something more, something else. We are thirsty for spirituality.

So some of us try to feed our souls with spiritual food from other cultures. We cherry-pick from indigenous cultures without learning the intimate details of what our lifted symbols mean. We buy witch starter kits from Sephora neatly packaged in pretty colors. We sage our houses after our boyfriends break our hearts and make voodoo dolls of them that we can stick vindictively with needles.

But when we do this, when we steal from other cultures to slake our spiritual thirst, we are unwittingly repeating the very violence we are trying to get away from. White Christian history involves a lot of appropriating, colonizing, taking without listening. When we pick and choose symbols and practices from cultures we know nothing about, we are repeating our learned intergenerational tradition of stealing without asking.

Humans have always traveled to distant lands, picking up knowledge from other people and making babies whose DNA spans the globe. Cultural exchange has been happening ever since there have been cultures. We cling to our ideas of race and culture because they matter to us on some level, but they are, in many ways, fictional. We made them up in order to create those hierarchies and power dynamics that some of us still benefit from.

Even if ideas of race are fiction, they matter. The power dynamics that exist in our culture today are not fictional.

So does this mean white witches like me must turn away from the possibility of a loving spirituality that honors the feminine and respects the natural world? I don’t think so. I think ritual and shared traditions can be deeply healing. They can help teach us empathy and how to move away from the wrongs of our forefathers. It’s a good thing to learn from other cultures when we do so with humility and honor. If we can find a way to be honest and respectful about our shared traditions, they can help us slake our spiritual thirst without hurting anyone else. White women like me are turning to witchcraft because it is a story that is still so open to interpretation. There is space for us to invent what this new tradition means. We can imagine a religion that worships at the feet of a feminine god, that aims to protect the natural world, and that gives women power. We can follow the moon and write down our wishes and burn the paper over salted water and feel that we are connecting to something that is free of suppression, violence, and slavery.

Of course, we’re not free of this history. We are not tapping into some true religion that existed in some naive, simple time before those things existed. But we are tapping into a different kind of magic that truly does belong to us: the power of the rebellious woman.

Our foremothers were violently burned, hanged, and tortured. They did not have magical powers beyond those of human women like us. They were rising up against their oppressors. They were refusing to accept the Christian patriarchal capitalist paradigm. We may not be left with some specific magical tradition, but something still remains: that rebellious instinct.

So I cast spells with the moon phases. I reflect on my desires, my power, the choices that I have in my life that my foremothers made possible for me. I use items that I have in my house. I work with the elements of water, fire, earth, and air. I make it up as I go along. Sometimes I do it with friends. I don’t know if this is the best, most respectful way to quench that thirst for spirituality. But I do know that these little intuitive rituals help me. They keep me connected to what matters to me, and they help me feel my spirituality in a way that is whole and connected. I know that they give me a certain kind of power. That’s plenty of magic.

Read more from Julie Peters here.